9/11 Legacy: USA's pilots speak out

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One of the most relevant commentaries on US aviation security in the post 9/11 environment would logically come from a group of those professionals most affected by the situation - US airline pilots. In a review of current security methods and procedures, the US Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) says that the existing focus by the security services on detecting "threat objects" rather than terrorists' planning and intent leaves aviation unnecessarily vulnerable to future attacks.

Capt Bob Hesselbein, chairman of ALPA's national security commit­tee, says screening should focus on behavioural criteria and less on objects. "Since the events of 9/11, the guiding threat-driven, risk-managed principle has been obscured at times with the advent of programmes that seems to add little or nothing of value to security efforts while having a negative impact on the functioning of the industry.

"Because of terrorists' ingenuity, it is difficult to predict accurately the form a future attack on an airliner or airport facility may take. Suicidal hijackers, bombers or other types of attackers exhibit behaviour that can lead to their detection prior to arriving at an airport or boarding an aeroplane even when their 'tools' are not detected," he says.

Commenting on the UK authorities' reaction to the recent plot to use liquid explosives on board transatlantic air journeys, Hesselbein says. "If the ban succeeds in deterring an attack, how can I say they were wrong? On the other hand, the effort to search every passenger for an extended list of forbidden, but common, items increases already limited search time and dilutes the ability of screeners to notice hard-to-find, cleverly placed plastic explosives."

ALPA also recommends "non-intrusive individual risk assessment programmes" using software and personal interaction techniques allied to multi-pronged seamless airport passenger processing at security checkpoints to clear "the well-established, well-known and historically safe traveller" without the same amount of checking that infrequent, unregistered travellers have to face.

"Security efforts are a necessary distraction from the primary effort of providing comfortable and efficient travel, and certainly increase the travel time and cost, but what other option is available?" says Hesselbein.

ALPA also calls for the installation of inexpensive "secondary barriers" immediately outside the cockpit as both retrofit devices and as a standard in future aircraft designs. This lightweight netting or link screen would block access to the area near the flightdeck door when the door has to be opened. "It would be a one-time expense, and would deter intrusion. United Airlines is the only carrier currently installing secondary barriers, and ALPA applauds this act," says Hesselbein.

Cargo security

The US air cargo security regulations that came into force in May 2006 led to significant improvements in the protection of the air cargo supply chain.

Nevertheless, ALPA insists, much work remains to be done and it is urging the development of an efficient and effective freight assessment system. Methods of vetting certain air cargo workers are still needed, says the organisation, together with improvements in the security vetting of air cargo personnel, equipment and cargo-only airports.

Flightdeck Officers

ALPA backed the Federal Flight Deck Officer programme - essentially armed volunteer pilots charged with defending flightdecks. This became reality under the 2002 Homeland Security Act and by 2004 the scheme was extended to pilots flying all-cargo aircraft. Today, ALPA estimates that thousands of volunteer pilots serve as flightdeck officers. ALPA comments, however, that volunteers are required to pay significant mandatory training costs and, three years after its introduction, the association notes that some carriers do not release pilots from their rosters to undergo training. ALPA adds that protocols for the carriage of duty weapons still needs refining by the US Congress, which also needs to examine extending the same protection to flightdeck officers that other law enforcement officers have should they become the subject of an internal investigation.

Identity verification

ALPA says that while the US government has yet to introduce a way of ensuring that armed individuals boarding commercial aircraft are positively identified, the identity and employment status of airline crew members are equally not verified, leading to security gaps and time wasted spent on pilot screening. ALPA's review of post 9/11 security details the marked increase in undercover armed guards on board US commercial aircraft to counter hijackings and other hostile acts.

Until 11 September 2001, US passenger airlines - mostly those flying international routes - were protected by a small group of armed federal air marshals managed by the Federal Aviation Administration. The air marshal service was subsequently "significantly bolstered" following the 9/11 terror attacks, its management transferred to the Transportation Security Administration, and its operations extended to protect US carriers both domestically and internationally.

ALPA says the service, which also heads the training of crew self-defence and of pilots volunteering to become federal flightdeck officers has become "deeply embedded in the US aviation domain".